Hath he smitten him, as he smote those that smote him? or is he slain according to the slaughter of them that are slain by him?
The two questions of this verse are rhetorical. And the answer is expected in both instances is an emphatic No!
The questions may seem at first glance to be rather sudden and without connection in the chapter. However, the connection is there; and it is very beautiful and comforting.
In the first part of this chapter the church of God is celebrated in song as a beautiful vineyard, kept night and day watered faithfully by Jehovah. For He shall cause “Jacob to take root: Israel shall blossom and bud, and fill the face of the world with fruit.” Implied, therefore, is the truth of the indestructibility of the church. For in the figure of the vine which again takes root lies the idea that it continues to live. The situation and condition of the church of Christ in the midst of the world may sometimes be pitiful and apparently hopeless. But reality is that the church never goes down to defeat. Reality is that the situation of Christ’s church in the world is never hopeless! Never is the church destroyed, and never can the church be destroyed!
Indeed, the people of God are smitten, and even slain. God smites both the righteous and the wicked, both Israel and Babylon. But there is an incalculably great difference. He never smites Israel as He smites those that smote him; nor is Israel slain according to the slaughter of them that are slain by him. Because of this difference, Israel always and again takes root and blossoms and buds, and shall fill the face of the world with fruit. The vine of God’s planting may be severely pruned betimes. But Jehovah our God roots out the thorn and the thistle, while the vine is preserved.
How God smites the righteous!
There is a smiting of which we may say that it comes directly from God, without any mediation of men. This is a smiting through the sufferings of this present time in general. God smites His church and His children through natural calamities and disasters. He smites them with hunger and famine and pestilence. He smites them with dreadful sicknesses and pain and lingering suffering. He smites them with grief and sorrow of every kind. The pages of history are written full of such suffering. It comes upon Israel, the church, as a whole; it comes also upon the individual child of God. In fact, God’s people often complain of it that they are smitten much more than the wicked, that the church is made to suffer much more than Babylon. Sometimes—think of Asaph, for example, in Psalm 73—they complain that they alone are smitten, while the wicked have prosperity and peace and plenty.
But it would seem that the prophet has something else in mind. For he refers to “those that smote him,” that is, that smote Jacob-Israel. And those that smote him were the powers of this world, the wicked, Assyria, Babylon. The reference, therefore, is emphatically to a smiting and a consequent suffering that comes upon the church and the children of God through the agency of the wicked world-power, through the agency of the ungodly, who hate and persecute and seek to destroy the people of God. Nevertheless, we must not forget that also this smiting comes from the hand of our heavenly Father. Our Confession puts it this way in Article 13: “. . .He rules and governs them according to His holy will, so that nothing happens in this world without His appointment.” And again: “. . .He so restrains the devil and all our enemies, that without His will and permission, they cannot hurt us.” And the prophet refers to the wicked Assyrian world-power (Isaiah 10:15) as the axe wherewith the Lord of hosts heweth, and the saw which He shaketh. Nevertheless, this does not change the fact that throughout the ages the church and the righteous are sorely smitten, and smitten precisely because they are righteous. In fact, the more righteous they are in the midst of the world, the more severely they are smitten.
Could not Israel sing, Psalm 129: “Many a time have they afflicted me from my youth, may Israel now say: Many a time have they afflicted me from my youth: yet they have not prevailed against me. The plowers plowed upon my back: they made long their furrows.”
And cannot the church of the new dispensation, looking back across the centuries of fierce persecution, join in this Psalm?
And could not many an individual saint from the past testify of being smitten and slain for the sake of God and His Christ? Could not the apostle Paul produce a long list of sufferings in the cause of the Gospel of Jesus Christ? Just listen: “. . . .in labors more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequent, in deaths oft. Of the Jews five times received I forty stripes save one. Thrice was I beaten with rods, once was I stoned, thrice I suffered shipwreck, a night and a day I have been in the deep; In journeyings often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils of mine own countrymen, in perils by the heathen, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; In weariness and painfulness, in watchings often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness” (II Cor. 11:23-27).
Looking at experience, looking at the things that are seen, one would be inclined to exclaim that things are all wrong, that there is no wisdom in the Most High, that He smites His people much more and to a much worse degree than He smites the ungodly.
But the Word of God emphasizes that the reverse is true.
And to emphasize it very strongly, Scripture phrases it in question form: has God ever smitten His people as He smote the wicked, and that, too, the very wicked who smote His people?
There is a fundamental difference!
The difference between Jehovah’s smiting of His people and His smiting of the ungodly consists, first of all, of a difference in motive. When the Lord smites His people, He always does so in love!
That is not true of the reprobate, ungodly world. Contrary to the philosophy of some, God’s wrath, only God’s wrath, is upon that world. The hatred of His eternal good pleasure is against them. The hatred of His righteous wrath against their ungodliness He manifests toward them; never—not even for a moment—His favor! The face of the Lord is against them that do evil, to cut off the remembrance of them from the earth. In His righteous wrath and in His eternal hatred, He smites the ungodly. Even in their prosperity there is still a revelation of His wrath: for when He causes the wicked to prosper, He is setting them in slippery places, in order to cast them down to destruction. And how much more is this true when He pours out the vials of His wrath in fierce judgments upon that world! Then God reveals Himself as the Righteous Judge and as a consuming fire!
But with regard to His children and His church this is different, fundamentally different!
He loves them!
From all eternity He has known them and foreknown them, even as He has conceived of them in His eternal good pleasure, even as He has graven their image in both the palms of His divine hands. Zion’s walls are continually before Him! And even as He has known them from eternity, He has loved them with an eternal love. And in that love He has given them to His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, in order that He should bear—and bear away forever—all the wrath of God in their place.
And it is that motif of love which characterizes Jehovah’s smiting of His people, whether He smites them directly and through the sufferings of this present time, or whether He smites them through the agency of their enemies.
Right here, therefore, is the underlying difference. It is the difference between hatred and love, between wrath and favor. It is the difference between a judge who smites out of fierce vengeance against trampled righteousness and justice and a father who smites out of fatherly love.
In all our chastisements we must keep this in mind, first of all!
He loves us!
But is not this divine smiting a loss for me, for the church?
No, it is all gain! It is always for our profit!
In fact, it is necessary: without it we cannot be perfected.
For here in the world God’s people are still imperfect.
Still imperfect—that cannot be said of the world and the ungodly. There is nothing in them to be perfected. In them is no principle of life and sanctification. One does not expect grapes from thorns, nor figs from thistles. And when the Almighty smites the ungodly world, He has no purpose of perfection with those ungodly. They are vessels of wrath, and they are that according to the eternal will of God.
But God’s people are still imperfect—and they must be perfected. That is true of the church as a whole: there is always present in that church in the midst of the world a kernel, a remnant according to the election of grace; but there is also present the carnal chaff. True it is, also, of the individual believer. There is in him a delight in the law of God after the inward man; but there is also still the law of sin which is in their members. And while the ungodly reprobate must be formed unto vessels of wrath, and that, too, according to the determinate counsel of God, Jehovah’s purpose with His church and His people is that they must become perfect. Ultimately they must be formed according to the image of Zion which He has in both the palms of His hands.
Hence, His church must indeed be preserved in the midst of an ungodly world.
But it must also be purified from unrighteousness.
And for this purpose God’s smiting is necessary. His smiting of His people is profitable, sanctifying, perfecting. It ends in their everlasting glory!
Not so for the wicked! If God as Judge smites in His wrath, who shall stand? If the ungodly are not only smitten, but slain, how can that ever prove profitable? But that is the portion of Babylon, of the Antichristian world-power, and of everyone who is ungodly. They are like the chaff which the wind driveth away. They go away into everlasting destruction; there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth. How dreadful!
But there is hope, glad hope, when God smites His people! For He never smites them to death, no matter how deep their way may become under His hand. He purifies them, sanctifies them, glorifies them. Just as a vine can be stripped of almost every branch by the pruning-knife, but it lives and is not destroyed, so it is with the church, with His people. Jacob’s iniquity is purged away; the whole fruit is to take away his sin.
Church of Jesus Christ, when the enemy rises up and you are persecuted, rejoice! Great is your reward in heaven. Child of God, pay attention to this! Our God chastises us out of His eternal love, and to our profit.
Thus we may understand, too, that God’s smiting of His people is a measured smiting; it is always with moderation.
That implies, in the first place, that a limit is set by God Himself. When He smites the wicked, it is without measure. But not so for God’s people: there is always a boundary and a limit. No, we do not know that measure; but God does! There may be various factors which enter into the divine determination of that measure. He may smite according to the place in glory which His people shall occupy in the everlasting day—a place for which they must be fitted and prepared. He may smite according to the measure of our sins, according to the measure of corruption that is present in His church or in us individually—to purge it away. Our character and our circumstances enter into the measure of that smiting. But of one thing we may be certain: the Lord our God always smites with that measure that is necessary to bring us to the destination.
But there is a second limit to God’s smiting of His people that is of great comfort. It is this: He always smites according to the measure of our strength and our endurance!
Is that not a great comfort? He never sends more than we are able to bear!
That is true for His church. It is true for the individual believer.
The way may seem very dark and hopeless and impossible to us. Sometimes we might be inclined to say, “Now God has slain them; they are lost under His wrath. They can never survive!”
But this is not necessary! He knows our frame. He is mindful that we are dust. He always smites with measured strokes. He never sends too much. With the temptations He always gives the way out.
Till His tender mercy shall break forth and shine in full glory, to the praise of His holy name!
Then we shall be smitten nevermore!